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Administrators Shadow Students to Gain Better Perspective

By Jeannette Bruno on March 14, 2017 hst

High school administrators make decisions every day that influence the educational and extracurricular experiences of students. Several factors influence these decisions, including past experiences, research or information studied, and perhaps the perceptions created within the building.

Perhaps a better way to gain the necessary information for making decisions, however, is to walk in the shoes of the students. Nationwide, in an effort to gain an understanding and an appreciation of the “day in the life” of a student today, administrators are shadowing their students. This nationwide effort is best represented by #ShadowaStudentChallenge on Twitter.

The “Shadow a Student Challenge” is an initiative of School Retool, a professional development fellowship that helps school leaders redesign their school cultures using the small, scrappy experiments called “hacks” introduced in the Shadow a Student Challenge. In peer cohorts, school leaders build toward a culture of Deeper Learning in their schools to better equip students for the future (shadowastudent.org).

An administrator’s daily schedule certainly has structure, but it also contains room for flexibility. There are meetings to attend and daily duties to fulfill; however, they can decide much of what they do – when to stand, have a cup of coffee, eat, use the lavatory and maybe even close the door for quiet time. Students do not have these luxuries – their days have specific structure dictated by bells, confined to classrooms, and with limited opportunities to fulfill any personal needs.

When selecting a student to shadow, Susie Wise, the K-12 lab network director at Stanford University’s d.school, recommends to carefully choose a student who represents the group you want to learn about.
Here are some experiences by administrators around the county and the “lessons” they learned:

Charles Sampson, superintendent of the Freehold Regional High School District in Monmouth County, New Jersey, wrote about his experience of shadowing one of the almost 12,000 students in his district. His motivation for conducting the shadow was as follows: “School through the student lens is the least we can do as we make organizational decisions for those students.”

Karen Ritter, an assistant principal in a high school outside of Chicago who participated in the Shadow a Student Challenge (shadowastudent.org), when asked “Why are you doing this?” by PBS, said she responded “to get a sense of what a student goes through in a day.”

In Dalton, Massachusetts, Aaron Robb has shadowed a few of his students in his first year as building principal at Wahconah Regional High School in an effort to gain insight into the student experience for each grade level. He and his administrative team shadowed “average” students to compare the experiences of each of the classes, for example, seniors versus freshmen. He is planning to continue this practice next year as they use this method of data collection to explore other parts of a student’s experience such as homework.

As was noted in the February issue of High School Today, athletic administrators have become involved in the shadowing experience as well. Dan Jones, athletic director at Hinsdale (Illinois) Central High School, wanted to examine his athletic department experience closer as well. “I decided I would participate in a practice with every one of our varsity programs,” Jones said. “I was at a point personally where I was trying to get back in shape, and professionally I wanted to have more contact with our student-athletes. I saw it as a chance to kill two birds with one stone.”

Hinsdale head boys basketball coach Nick Latorre said, “Having Dan come to practice was a very positive experience for both myself, as well as the team. I think it is great for our kids to have an administrator show an interest in their team in a very positive manner. It also has helped Dan develop a strong bond with all of our teams and have a different perspective on the relationships players have with each other as well as their coaches.”

Stephanie Brown, principal at Montgomery Middle School in San Diego, California, suggests that shadowing a student is not about observing classes but is more an exercise in empathy. “The point is to be student-centered and doing everything your student does without judgment.” Brown chose to shadow Sabrina Mohamad, a Muslim student. She immersed herself into the experience, beginning the day at Sabrina’s house where she learned how to put on a hijab (head covering worn in public by Muslim women). The walk to school was a longer route than expected in order to ensure safety.

“Shadowing a student for a day inspires me to improve the student experience at school,” Brown said. “One key observation I made was that Sabrina holds an identity of being different than her peers. When she shared with me that some students make fun of her religion, it got me thinking that most students don’t understand her culture or lack empathy for those who are different than themselves. This makes me wonder how empathy building can be a part of the experience here at Montgomery.”

As a shadowing experience is planned, it is helpful to establish an evaluation method. Identify the key school measures that you are targeting and “grade” them prior to the shadowing experience and then immediately following it. This may help you identify priorities or even additional variables to explore as part of your data collection.

Key measures within the academic setting can include Active Learning (students are learning actively through creating, questioning and discovering), Student Engagement, Relevance (how often teachers drew a clear connection between student work and the real world), School Climate and High Standards.

As you consider shadowing a student, you are among the educational leaders who set a goal of making the best decisions for your students.

As Charles Sampson previously noted, “Examining school through the student lens is the least we can do as we make organizational decisions for those students.” So pack a snack, charge your phone and be ready to experience your school through a student’s lens.

Further Reading

Ginsberg, M.B. (February 2012). Stepping into a Student’s Shoes. Educational Leadership, 69:5. Retrieved here.

Ginsberg, M. B. (December 2015/January 2016). Shadowing a student shows how to make learning more relevant. Kappan, 26-30. Retrieved here.

Pope, D. (2001). Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. Yale University Press.

Pope, D., Brown, M., and Miles, S. (2015). Overloaded and Underprepared. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Wiggins, G. (2014) “A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned.” Blog post retrieved here.